This evening our parish celebrated Evening Prayer as a community, gathered on the occasion of offering prayers and Eucharistic Adoration for Henry Reese, who is set to be ordained as a permanent deacon in Harrisburg tomorrow morning by Bishop Gainer. Below is the reflection I offered after the ordinary psalmody for the day, and the reading from Acts 6 describing the 7 men chosen and ordained as deacons for the distribution for the needy of the Church.
“Praise him, servants of the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. Praise the Lord for the Lord is good. Sing a psalm to his name for he is loving.”
These words from the psalms beautiful describe what we’re doing here this evening. It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give Him thanks, our holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. We praise God for the grace he gives us to fruitfully and faithfully live out the call he gives us: our vocation: our beautiful part to play in his perfect plan of love; for our salvation, and the salvation of others, and for the glorious majesty of God. As Henry will later witness to us of God’s presence with us, in his intercession for us, and in his compassionate, loving service to us, in God’s love poured out to us through him, so this evening, we witness to Henry God’s presence with him, our prayers of intercession for him, in God’s love poured out to him through us.
The word “vocation” comes from the Latin, “voco, vocare, vocatio” – to call. God creates us in our mother’s womb with a job to do, a unique and irreplaceable function in God’s perfect plan of love. Of course, God wouldn’t be much of a loving and wise God if he created us for a function, and then didn’t give us the capacity to fulfill that function. So we each have our own unique assortment of gifts, talents, and natural abilities, which help us not only to discern our vocation, but to enable us to fulfill our vocation.
Unfortunately, the more we fulfill, or even prepare to fulfill, our part in God’s beautiful plan, the more the diabolical enemy is going to attack us with doubts and fear and other tools of his trade. We need to acknowledge our doubts, fears, and struggles, and entrust them to God, and ask for his protection, even asking the Saints for their prayers as well.
So now that we are aware of why we are here—to praise God as the assembly of his church, and to lift Henry up in the prayers of the Church—let’s talk for a moment about what it is that Henry’s getting himself into.
Of the seven holy sacraments of the Church, Holy Orders is one of the three that imprint an eternal mark on the soul. Like Baptism and Confirmation, once the sacrament is received, the person who received the sacrament is forever different, forever more configured to Christ according to the character of the particular sacrament. However, Holy Orders is unique among the sacraments in that it can be conferred and received in three different degrees. It is also the only sacrament that can only be conferred by a bishop, a direct successor to the apostles. The three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, to remind you, are the order of the diaconate, for deacons, the order of the presbyterate, for priests, and the order of the episcopacy, for bishops. All those fancy words are from the Greek, the Church’s first language, and the language of the New Testament. “Episcopacy,” from “episcopos,” literally means “overseer,” one who is responsible for that particular community of the Church, which is a diocese. “Presbyterate” from “presbyteros” literally means an “elder,” those who manage, temporally and spiritually, a smaller grouping, a parish, within the Christian community, representing the authority and ministry of the bishop, the overseer. And then “Diaconate,” from “diakonos,” means a “servant,” those who, like in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, are ordained to work closely with the priests in their pastoral care of the Church. Of course many people can and do assist the pastor in his pastoral care, as appointed pastoral assistants, such as those of religious orders who humbly and beautifully carry out this role with great love. So without downplaying their invaluable ministry in any way, the deacon has a particular sacramental grace, which orders his personal faculties in a way that is unique to diaconal ministry.
The deacon’s role in the order of the Church’s community is reflected in the deacon’s role in the celebration of the Church’s liturgy. The deacon has an invaluable insight, being both clergy, on the one hand, and sharing in the secular, marital, and family concerns of the laity, on the other hand. The deacon represents the Church’s care for the particular temporal and spiritual needs of the members of the Body of Christ. The deacon calls the people to repentance and conversion, in offering the Penitential Act at the beginning of the Mass, and offers the intercessions in the Mass, bringing the needs of the Church into her liturgical prayer. As the deacon proclaims the gospel in his ministry to the Church in the world, the deacon also proclaims the gospel reading to the Church in the liturgy of the Mass. He is also ordained to preach, bringing the gospel into relationship with the context and needs of the faithful living in the current times, informed by the particular experience of the faithful, and inspired by the Holy Spirit to both console—and challenge—the faithful in their own call to holiness.
The deacon, of course, also assists at the altar. As the priest is the fulfillment of the Old Testament priesthood, offering the sacrifice of the Lamb on the altar of God for the atonement and thanksgiving of the people of God, so the deacon is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Levite, the Temple attendants, assisting the priests in their liturgical sacrifice. The deacon is most especially associated with the chalice, the blood of Christ sacrificed and poured out for the salvation of the world. As Christ is the union between the life of the divine and the human, the deacon, in a way, is the union of the life of the clergy and the faithful.
For a short description of the experience of a deacon, wanting to faithfully live out his living ministry to the Church, I defer to Deacon James Keating, whose intellectual insight, dry sense of humor, and desire for holy ministry, I greatly appreciate. To paraphrase Deacon Keating:
“…[T]he vocation of the deacon is complex. The complexity arises from the net of relationships in which the deacon finds himself upon ordination, a net that is not to be escaped but embraced. Unfortunately, the intricacy of the relationships of the diaconate can tempt a man to despair, as he makes efforts to please all of his constituencies: wife, children, bishop, pastor, employer, parishioners… fellow deacons, and more. …[T]he deacon also feels pressed to “perform” well in his ministries, which can be various and often emotionally consuming; however, looking at the vocation of deacon from the perspective of what Christ is sharing with him, the deacon can receive clarity on a vital truth: it is not the quantity of acts of service that matter to Christ, but simply one’s fidelity to the character of ordination. Excessive activity and neurotic hand-wringing about whether “I am doing enough to help others” gives birth only to stress, not holiness…
The key to living the diaconate in a simple yet effective way is found within one’s fidelity to the character received at ordination. … As one meditates upon the meaning of diaconal character, one realizes that Holy Orders mediates a gift to be received and not simply tasks to accomplish. [As a deacon embraces his ordained vocation…], the various and complex relationships that make up his life will become a support to him in his ministry and will no longer be rivals for his time and emotional capital.”
We’re gathered here this evening to praise God, and to thank him for his merciful love. We’re gathered here to pray for Henry, and to assure him of our love and support, as he becomes, and learns and embraces what it means to be… a holy deacon of the Church.
Saint Stephen, the Deacon… Pray for us.
St. Philip, the Deacon… Pray for us.
St. Lawrence the deacon, and patron saint of deacons… Pray for us.